"The Joy Of Dressing Is An Art" - John Galliano
As an avid net-worker I meet incredible people all the time but it’s rare I’m blown away by the tenacity and determination I found in this month’s interviewee - Ann Marie McDonagh!
She oozes elegance and grace but you quickly realize that it’s her steely determination and focus that has positioned her as a successful globally recognized Irish Business Woman with her brand Serenity & Grace. /By Siobhan Fitzpatrick,
Founder of The Networking Summit, WIBN Ireland & Catseye Coaching
Find her on
SERENITY & GRACE
Q. Ann Marie, could you describe the journey for you and Serenity & Grace?
A. Many people think I have a design background. In reality, I wanted to study art and design but my school in Co Mayo didn’t offer an Art option after Intercert! So even after getting an A in Art my plans for my fashion empire were parked at an early point! It was through a chance opening in Wallis for an in-house fit model and design room assistant at 19 that I started on my graft through the ranks.
My career in fashion brought me through various head office roles from planning and merchandising to buying then running global and wholesale for Monsoon, Gant and becoming Global Commercial Director for Fred Perry before deciding to set up myself. Through my career I was very much on the commercial side of these multi-million-pound businesses - understanding the customer profile, there needs, pricing, competition, global variances etc along with implementing branded websites, new logistics processes, warehouses and systems, new stores and new markets. It made sense that I bring this knowledge and experience into a business idea I had for premium affordable luxury particularly in woman’s occasion wear where there is very little choice in the market.
During the UK recession, the market lost many of its occasion wear brands; woman opted for conservative dressing and refrained from dressing up. In Ireland however it was the reverse, I could see that women continued to take time to dress for occasions and to make the effort for an occasion of celebration. I could see a big gap in the market not only in the UK but globally.
Customers wanted something special, no matter what their shape or size. They wanted to look and feel their best.
Serenity & Grace was due to be an online-only personal service provider. It was to be a top to toe offer on mobile hair and make-up along with personal styling for the planned occasion. This concept was introduced some 3 years ago, but the tech market was not ready for the personalization model at the time, three years on they are screaming for it!
They ‘got’ our concept straight away and within a month we were trading in the main entrance and overachieving against well known, established brands. It was the best feeling ever!
The house of Fraser met with me after 2 weeks of trading to discuss the rollout of 6 more concessions plus online.
I still sometimes can’t believe our luck.
Q. How do you stand out from your competitors?
A. I think the most important thing is to know your customer and stay true to them. I am a big believer in working on the sales floor,
it gives you all the insight you could possibly need. I think we the well-established brands are so huge it is very difficult to find something different. People need to be confident their outfit will not be seen on another guest to an event! As a team, all our staff is hired as
stylists and not sales assistants. We are about finding the right look for our customers, the department stores personal stylists often ask
us for advice and with this approach, we have referred and repeat business.
Q. What or who has helped in the building of your brand?
A. Since launching in House Of Fraser we have gained a good following from stylists to celebs and with the press. Shirley Ballas from
Strictly regularly wears our dresses as does many tv presenters and soap stars for awards. A high-level celeb wearing one of our outfits
well is worth more than an advertisement campaign. I am also a big believer in helping charities where you can, we all know people
who need help through their life so do what I can through Serenity & Grace, it could be giving a makeover to someone well deserving or organising a charity fashion show, the feel-good feeling not only benefits the receiver but goes a long way for the brand, you can’t buy goodwill, you have to earn it!
Q. In 2018 you set up a Crowd Funding campaign and many congratulations in raising over 112% of your funds. What advice do you have for our readers considering the same?
A. Keep your campaign simple, you have a few minutes to sell your story. Don’t make it hard to grasp. I found that as soon as I talked about fashion and beauty I lost people. As a start-up, you need to have a clear focus on how you will get to your next stage and what your focus needs to be. Investors are not interested in people spreading themselves too thinly, they want to know the milestones and how you will get there.
Q. As a fellow Irish International Business Network (IIBN) member. What value or importance do you put on networking for your business and your personal brand?
A. I was actually surprised how helpful one network group could be. Through the crowd funding, campaign material, speaking at events, PR contacts to attending the #wearingirish event in the Irish Embassy here in London to now working with the Irish Ambassadors wife Aisling O’Neil and dressing her for an event in the Palace. It was not just about business connections but found a great group of people supporting me with feedback on the campaign, attending Serenity & Grace events and contacting me with ideas to help the brand.
Following on from IIBN I was nominated for their GIFT campaign which helps female entrepreneurs with global expansion.
Q. Start-ups regularly depend on the support of government programs / grants. Was this something you leveraged in the UK when building your business? Are there any you’d recommend?
A. As an Irish citizen, I would have liked to have worked with EI as I developed the business and carried stock from Irish suppliers. Unfortunately, as we are UK based this was not possible however I would definitely speak to them had I been based in Ireland.
Government grants and support are invaluable, not just financially but also engaging in their pool of experts within their support
network. In time I would like to be able to do more to set up more Irish fashion businesses, it is on my ever growing wish list!
Q. What’s next for Serenity & Grace?
We have a long way to go but our main focus is on brand building and global expansion. With the uncertainty of Brexit and the UK high street it is imperative we are looking further afield. We have built a good international customer in Oxford St because markets like the Middle East, Asia, and the US are crying out for something new. For product development, there is so much further to go from introducing a wider offer, market-relevant pieces to fragrance and accessories.
Parallel to this, we are also working on our tech offer, giving customers the personalization and styling they would find in stores.
We have engaged some great experts in the field so very much looking forward to the launch.
In basic terms, we would like Serenity & Grace to be the market leader for Occasion wear and in technology, no pressure!
Q. You’re a business owner, wife and Mom, multi-tasking and juggling must play a huge part in what you do. What’s your secret?
Thankfully I have two great boys! My sons are 15 and 13 so very much self-sufficient now during the week and at weekends it’s important to take time out with them, of course if their social calendar allows for it! If they are busy I will go to visit one of our concessions or follow up on emails, I try to make the most of any spare time I have.
It was far harder making the work/life balance work when the boys were younger but I firmly believe it’s good for them to see you can succeed when you show commitment. People often say if you enjoy what you do you will never feel like you are working, some of my days are like that - organizing fashion shows, meeting suppliers, stylists etc but we all have the hard mundane work like accounts, staff management, logistics which are a business necessity whoever you are.
Q. And finally, I ask all my interviewee’s this question -
what mantra if any, do you live by?
I was quite surprised when one of my sons said to me recently, “mum, you followed your dreams and look where you are” it was a reminder to me that if you believe and work hard for something it can happen! In my case, it has been some 30 years in the making but never give up! I also think we often run into dead ends along our path but there is a defined path we are meant to follow, sometimes you have to be open-minded to see where you are going and if it’s a dead end turn around quick!!
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